The Daytona 24-hour race is the traditional kick-off to the new season each year. This year, given all the bad news about the economy, there has been much speculation about the harmful effect this will have on the racing. Indeed, one observer predicted that we might see only a half-dozen or so Grand-Am Daytona Prototype entries this year.
The proof is in the pudding as they say and the first round of the Rolex Grand-Am series went off with a bang – a solid entry in DP (20 starters) and in GT (28 starters) – and close racing right down to the checkered flag. What a way to start the season!
It’s called endurance racing and it not uncommon that when the light returns the second day to see only a handful of competitors still in any kind of contention and the race leader may have a lead of several laps over the second-place runner. That doesn’t mean that the race is over by any means because misfortune – in the form of mechanical failure, driver error, or mischance – can sideline a car for several laps or the rest of the race giving those who were laps behind a chance to catch up. Usually it’s about endurance more than it’s about speed.
Case in point. In mid-morning at the 1979 Le Mans 24-hour, the Whittington brothers Porsche had a lead of 17 laps over the second-place Porsche driven by Paul Newman and others. Then Don Whittington had a drive belt fly off way out on the Mulsanne Straight. He did eventually manage to bring the car back to the pits but it took him over an hour to get back – and that would have been more than enough time for the Newman car to take over a commanding lead. However, almost at the same time the Whittington car had its trouble, the Newman car came into the pits for a tire change and lost 23 minutes when a lug nut refused to budge. Hot shoe Rolf Stommelen was able to make up some laps on the leader but not enough before the other car resumed the race. This left things pretty much as they had been – but we still knew that these Porsches had been plagued by suspension problems and either car could yet have trouble and the order could still change. In the end, it was the Newman car that had more troubles and had to settle for second place.
This year’s Daytona 24-hour saw problems affect the standings like that. In the early evening of the first day, the Ganassi No. 01 car pitted with a broken front splitter and pulled into the garage area to replace it – and went a lap down on the leader. Every optimistic, the drivers – headed by regular Scott Pruett and his erstwhile timemate/nemesis NASCAR regular Juan Montoya (remember Mexico two years ago?) – kept up the pace and they got back on the lead lap three hours later. The race saw a record number of full-course cautions – 25 – which helped keep the field bunched up.
Coming up to the 23-hour mark there were still four cars very much in contention on the lead lap with Juan Montoya holding the lead ahead of Antonio Garcia in one of the Brumos Porsches. When the final caution came out just before the hour, all four made their final pit stops. David Donahue, who replaced Garcia in the No. 58 Porsche, was the only driver change among the four cars. Despite this, somehow he pulled out right behind Montoya, hanging on the second place. When the green came out, Donahue immediately made a strong charge at Montoya and almost got past him on the first green-flag lap. Throughout the race if we hadn’t noticed it, many of the rival drivers had pointed out for us that the Porsches had a clear power advantage over the other engines and they could consistently pull out a lead coming around the banking into the backstretch chicane. Despite this handicap, Montoya was able to draw on all his race craft and hold off the charging Donahue – for a while.
No one could doubt that Donahue was pretty motived. His father, the legendary Mark Donahue, had won here exactly 40 years before and all eyes were on him to see if he might, for once, have a result that echoed his father’s stellar record.
Donahue kept charging at Montoya lap after lap, often coming up alongside him at the end of the backstretch. Then, after 20 minutes of this, Montoya was very slightly baulked by a GT car in the chicane. That was all Donahue needed and he came charging out onto the second section of the high banking. He drew up alongside Montoya and nosed ahead coming up to the tight turn into the infield. He had him!
For the final 40 minutes, Montoya gave it best he had, but once the Porsche was in front, Montoya could never overcome the power advantage of his rival. When the checker flew he crossed the line 0.167 seconds behind Donahue – the closest ever finish in this race.
How any race fan could be down after this I don’t know – a good, solid field, 16-hours of great television commentary, and that stirring final run to the finish – a great start to the new racing season. I think that we are going to see a better racing season than we had feared. I suspect that if we focus on the positives rather than some of the inevitable negatives race fans are going to have a lot to cheer for in 2009.